Language Power Struggles, 9 Years Later

Probably my most popular blog post ever has been the Language Power Struggles one from way back in 2010. It’s hard to believe it’s been 9 years since I wrote that, and when I recently discussed the issue with Jared in our podcast, I realized that my attitudes have changed a bit over the years.

The advice that I gave in that article still stands: that in a battle of wills where communication is not the goal of interaction, no one really wins. And if you’re interacting with Chinese people both to improve your Chinese and to have meaningful communication with other human beings, it’s best not to participate in these silly “power struggles.”

And yet I can clearly remember routinely participating in these meaningless battles of will, whether at a restaurant talking to the server, or in a store, or getting a haircut… And now I recognize that back in the beginning a big part of what drove the stubbornness to engage in the struggles was insecurity. As if by refusing to communicate with me in Chinese, the other person was insulting the Chinese level I had worked so hard to achieve. I imagine the other person may often have felt the same way. So then you’re left with two egos duking it out over language supremacy, but also not really even caring about the other person’s level.

So nowadays I’m a lot more laid back and compassionate about people insisting on using English with me. Not everything has to be about principles of efficiency or showing proper “respect.” I know, it sure took me long enough to recognize this (and it’s a bit embarrassing), but I think that at the root of it was simply a dearth of quality communication in Chinese. After starting my own company in 2010 and working with all Chinese staff all day every day in Chinese, I no longer felt a need to use Chinese in every other interaction, because I had my fill.

So, to those of you who, like me, like to ponder these sociolinguistic issues, I ask you: do you participate in language power struggles? Do they annoy you? Is your emotional reaction to them (or lack thereof) a factor of your own personality, or do you think it’s related to “having your fill” practicing Chinese? How big of a factor is linguistic insecurity?

P.S. I like the “Han Solo-Chewbacca communication” concept Jared brought up in the podcast!


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. David LaBolle Says: February 26, 2019 at 10:43 pm

    I think it often has to do with who has a better competency in the other’s language. Which ever is stronger will usually become the language of the interaction.

    Now that I’ve lived in Taiwan for most of the last thirty years, and speak the language well, people on the street rarely try to switch the conversation to English.

  2. I’m also very interested in situations where each person speaks their own language, especially when the languages are very different, and how this approach can contribute to language acquisition.

    This kind of multilingual communication is used extensively with the Automatic Language Growth (ALG) approach, where it’s called “Crosstalk”.

    I’ve written about using Crosstalk with tutors to learn Mandarin:

    I would speak English with my tutors while they spoke Mandarin to me, with them using non-verbal communication like drawings a lot at first to help me understand what they were saying.

    Later I was able to do this with tutors over Skype, even with voice only, as my comprehension had improved enough that if I didn’t understand, they could just rephrase or explain what they were saying using other Chinese words.

    The rationale for Crosstalk in ALG is that we acquire languages not through speaking, but through listening to comprehensible input.

    ALG theorizes that adults don’t learn languages as easily and as well as young children not because we can’t, but because unlike children we usually consciously study and practice them first, before internalizing them sufficiently through listening.

    In contrast, with Crosstalk the focus is on communication rather than the language, and listening a lot first before speaking it much. ALG theorizes that by learning this way adults can pick up languages effortlessly and approach native-like levels of ability.

    From own experience, while I’m not fluent in Mandarin yet, as I put my “studies” of it on hold, I gained the ability to pronounce it clearly without the need for any drills or practice. I credit this to internalizing it first with many hours of listening, whereas I’ve seen many people who tried to speak from the start have pronunciations strongly influenced by the sounds of their first language.

    While I used Crosstalk with tutors who I paid, it could also be done as a language exchange between people who want to learn one another’s language, for example an English speaker and a Mandarin speaker.

    They could start with no knowledge of each other’s language and use a lot of non-verbal tools like pictures and gestures to get across meaning, but as they start to understand more of each other’s language, they would rely upon those things less and less.

    Eventually, each person would be able to start to speak the language they had been hearing, and sound a lot like the people they had been listening to.

    One issue with acquiring this way is being able to sustain interesting exchanges for many hours. It seems to help if each person is at a similar level in their understanding of the other’s language. With so many speakers of English and Mandarin, a lot of Crosstalk pairings are probably possible with these two languages.

  3. It’s interesting that you have a self-reflective insight on the language power struggle 9 years after your more analytical sociolinguistic blog post! I was wondering, have you encountered any research papers on the language power struggle at all? I’m super interested in the sociolinguistic underpinnings of language in interpersonal relationships, and it’d be really cool if there were formal research done on this particular phenomenon!

  4. I haven’t found any research on this either, but have asked a lot of people about their motivations since I read the article when it came out 9 years ago. There are a variety of motivations. Consider a few examples from the good, the bad, and the ugly. The good example: when I am talking to top-level United Nations or Chinese Foreign Ministry interpreters, they usually try to figure out what the other person is speaking and go with that. Their motivation is usually to show respect to whoever they are talking to. Less experienced people of this type often easily get confused. Despite that their English is better than most college educated Americans’, they aren’t insistent upon using English at all.

    The bad is when the other person assumes, based solely on your appearance, that you must not be good at speaking Chinese, and that it would be impossible for you to communicate in Chinese with them in a manner that would make sense for them to entertain. So, they insist on English. This is obviously a highly prejudicial attitude and in my experience, pretty rare. Caucasian Chinese of Siberian ancestry in New York have said that they ‘often’ encounter this attitude in Chinatowns, even if they cannot speak English–many people insist on it.

    The ugly comes from the book Juying Guo, which asserts that many Chinese have the emotional capacity and behavior of infants. The author claims many bad actors do not see other people’s lives as having meaning, and see them as means to achieve gain for themselves. This would explain extremely aggressive English-learners who may not be seeking out chances to learn English, but when they meet a foreigner, a switch on their brain goes off that says this is a good resource to exploit for personal gain. The author is explaining situations like the Chongqing bus crash and other outrageously selfish acts of people in public that we seem from time to time, and the audience is a Chinese public that has a hard time of understanding these monsters in their midst. Some people also said that elite students in China are reputed for ugly social behavior, only befriending people that will bring them material benefit and for such purpose.

    Human motivation is a complicated topic, especially when a foreign culture is involved. Based on 9 years of anecdotal evidence and asking around, the power struggle behavior seems to be rooted in the same kind of behavior as people who talk on cell phones in movie theaters. It simply does not occur to them that others around them are living people, and that their interest deserve respect, too.I rarely or never encounter any of this kind of stuff personally these days in China; the younger people today interested in learning English apparently have also been educated to respect other people.

  5. I used to find myself in these power struggles a lot when I was first learning Chinese but nowadays they rarely seem to happen anymore. I suspect that’s for two reasons: 1. My Chinese is much better than it was back then and most Chinese people I talk to quickly switch to Chinese when they realize this. Interestingly enough this also seems to include many people whose English is (at least from my perspective) very good. I have a fair number of friends who speak great English and speak English with all the other foreigners I see them interacting with, yet still default to Chinese with me.
    The second reason I think I rarely end up in these power struggles anymore is because 2. I no longer care. My language has gotten to the point where I have a normal life and can converse in any of the subjects that are important to or interest me, and I no longer feel the need to actively seek out conversation practice. I get it in my everyday life without looking for it. This echoes what you wrote in your own reflection. Now when I meet someone Chinese I normally address them first in Chinese by default, but if they switch to English or speak to me in English first I run with it. Sometimes they end up switching back when they realize I speak Chinese well.
    I do think it’s ironic that I used to actively seek out conversation in Chinese and people would “oppose” it by trying to talk to me in English instead; now I am fine with speaking English but people keep switching back to Chinese anyway.

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